Written by Anna Hollisey
Written by Anna Hollisey
What happens inside your dog’s brain when you scold or call their name? Does your dog care when you laugh, sing, or cry? And WILL OUR DOGS EVER TALK TO US? We’ve been consulting the latest research about talking to our dogs to give you all the answers.
And your dog has programmed it into their memory (…aww). Every human voice has its own pitch, tone and timbre. It can be high or low, gravelly or smooth, movie-trailer-dark, or full of light. Our dogs have learned to identify these features – and understand what they mean.
Yes, they certainly do. Just this year, researchers proved that dogs use their hearing as well as scent to locate their best friends. In a paper published in Animal Cognition journal (2022), a team led by Anna Gabor reported on tests they’d carried out with 28 family dogs.
They invited the dogs to play ‘hide and seek’ with a twist – in each game, there were two people hiding: their owner and a decoy (a stranger). The team chose people with similar voices and played the game using real people as well as recordings of their voices. Both (hidden) people called, and the dogs had to go directly to their owners. With the dogs getting an 82% success rate, the research team said that “overall, our findings show that dogs can identify their owner based on vocal cues […] using some but probably not all acoustic cues that humans use to identify familiar speakers.”
One more interesting finding: dogs were more likely to recognize their owner’s voice if they were positioned on their left side, suggesting that dogs use the right side of their brain for “more familiar or more emotional stimuli”.
When you scold your dog, do they lower their tail and ears? And if you call them for a cuddle, are they quick to bounce over? As owners, we’ve always known that dogs are tuned into our emotions. And now science knows it too.
In 2014, a Hungarian study showed that dogs are able to scan our voices for emotion. They trained a panel of dogs to lie still inside MRI machines, which revealed which parts of their brains were the busiest. Then they played sounds to the dogs to discover their mental responses.
The research team found that there was increased activity in one particular zone of the brain when the dogs heard human or dog voices. There was even more when the human (or dog) voices were happy or engaging. (It’s similar to the pattern that’s been identified in human brains.)
Dogs have evolved the ability to understand more and more of human communication, including our emotions.
Next time you have a chat with your dog (admit it, we all do), you can be assured that they are picking up lots of information from your voice – which is, of course, what makes them such fabulously attentive companions.
Many owners have noticed that their dogs will stay close when they are sad or crying – even if it’s just because of a sad movie. Is your dog a real snuggler?
In 2012, a research paper by Custance and Mayer made a significant finding in this area. They studied canine behavior in simulated situations, asking humans (owners as well as strangers) to talk, hum, and cry. Their tests showed that dogs behaved in a submissive manner (licking, sniffing or nuzzling) when people cried.
In 2020, another team continued this research, asking people to laugh as well as cry. They found that dogs’ emotional response and heart-rate changed more when the subjects cried. Laughing didn’t affect the dogs. The team also noted that dogs with higher stress levels were the ones who were more likely to show empathy. In other words, some dogs are more sensitive to human emotion than others.
So your dog may be extremely (or barely) sensitive to your sorrow – just like people, they all express themselves a little differently.
Now that we know our dogs understand when we are happy, sad or angry, it’s important that we consider the way we use our voices during training and handling.
Why? Because an angry voice can make you intimidating, producing a stressed dog who may become defensive. Instead, try to use a firm and neutral tone, even if you are upset (if your dog’s just stolen a tray of uncooked biscuits… as a hypothetical example).
In a stressful situation like a house move or visiting family, we can communicate calm and gentleness to our dogs so that they are less likely to panic and more likely to listen. It’s not easy. But our dogs respond closely to our vocal cues, so a chilled owner often produces a more chilled dog.
Have you seen the ‘talking dogs’ on Instagram? Around the world, dedicated owners (including a qualified speech pathologist, who’s built a cool website on the subject) are going through intensive training to teach their dogs to communicate in human words.
How? The dogs use programmed buttons (set into a mat on the floor) to choose words and form phrases. Dogs can tell their owners that they want food or they want to go outside – and they appear to be capable of doing it independently!
Check out Bunny and her Pawsome owner
Of course when you stop and think about it, most dogs already know a lot of human words. From ‘bed’ and ‘treat’ to ‘walk’, ‘stick’ and ‘Mom’… dogs could also know the names of rooms and people in the house, and of course the names of all their fave toys. It seems possible that dogs could learn to press a button associated with a word that they know, although it must require many hours of training!
While dog ‘talking’ is a very new trend, we’re excited to see where it goes. Does your dog have an impressive vocabulary? Send us a message or leave a comment on our socials – we’d love to hear your stories.